PERRYVILLE — Back in Daniel Boone’s day, and on other occasions since, Kentucky has been famously referred to as “the dark and bloody ground.”
But never in the state’s history was that phrase more apt than on Oct. 8, 1862, when Perryville was littered with thousands of dead and dying soldiers.
Visitors to the museum at the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site this weekend will get a visceral reminder of that gory chapter when they take in a new exhibit dedicated to battlefield surgeon Dr. Robert McMeens, who worked tirelessly to save what he could of his Union comrades but could not save himself.
The exhibit depicts McMeens awash in blood up to his forehead, cleaning up over a wash basin at the Karrick-Parks House in Perryville after 36 straight hours of surgery under the most brutal conditions imaginable.
“A few people have said, ‘Wow. He’s really bloody.’ Well, yeah. Can you imagine having to cut a limb off every 12 minutes? That’s a bad day,” said Joan House, the battlefield’s preservation coordinator. “I do want people to be startled by it. It’s not nearly as graphic as it could have been.”
The McMeens exhibit is meant to draw attention to the plight of those who remained behind in Perryville after the battle was fought and what was left after the armies moved on, House explained. The battle’s 150th commemoration this weekend is expected to draw more than 10,000 visitors and the staff wanted to tell the story beyond the show re-enactors will put on.
“We all want to look at the grand, epic movement of the armies, but after the soldiers left, the battle was still here every day, for a long time,” House said. “There were 7,000 wounded, and many can’t be moved for months. They are dying of blood poisoning, pneumonia, starvation, infection for months afterward.”
McMeens himself didn’t make it out of Perryville alive. He died there on Oct. 30, 1862, 22 days after the battle was fought.
“He basically worked himself to death, putting in 12 to 14-hour days,” House said.
A prominent surgeon from Ohio, McMeens, already ailing, joined the rush of Union troops headed to Perryville to take on the growing Confederate presence vying to take control of Kentucky. The forced march was so urgent that medical supplies were left behind in Louisville, and McMeens went into the battle with just a small surgeon’s kit.
That very kit, embossed with McMeens’ name and containing seven scalpel-like instruments, is part of the exhibit. It’s on loan from Civil War collector Larry Strayer of Ohio, who has worked with the museum staff for two years preparing the exhibit for display during this weekend’s commemoration. It will stay in place for a year.
McMeens’ story is known mostly through letters he wrote to his wife while remaining in Perryville after the battle, tending the best he could to the tattered Union troops left behind. The letters paint a heartbreaking portrait of a hero resigned to his fate but carrying on until his last breath. A¿passage from one letter, dated Oct. 14, reads:
“I feel some better this morning, but still very weak. Dr. Weber is here and bids me remain another day. He would give me order home on furlough but so long as my life holds out, I feel it is my duty to follow my friends in their fate.”
While visitors come to enjoy the pageantry and history of re-enactors in full regalia recreating battles on the very fields where they were fought, the bloodied visage of McMeens reminds of the horrible human cost expended in such violent fighting.
“War is a God-awful thing, and we need not forget that,” House said.
Battle of Perryville traffic plan
PERRYVILLE — The Kentucky Department of Parks wants to make residents of the Perryville area aware of the traffic plan for this weekend’s the Battle of Perryville commemoration and re-enactment event.
Visitors will travel into Perryville and turn onto Battlefield Road where they will be directed onto Hays-May Road to spectator parking and admissions at Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site.
Hays-May Road will become one-way beginning 5 a.m. Saturday. It will remain one-way until 5 p.m., then return to two-way traffic until 7 a.m. Sunday. It will be one-way traffic until 5 p.m. Sunday.
Battlefield Road beyond Hays-May will remain two-way. However, traffic will be limited to resident, event participants and emergency vehicles only.